One silver lining of the Village Voice canceling all new articles is that it gives me time to write for Deadspin again, and I did so yesterday, with an article investigating how exactly sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, once known as a prominent critic of stadium subsidies, ended up helping Worcester put together one of the biggest minor-league baseball subsidies ever to lure the Pawtucket Red Sox to town.
There’s been lots of speculation about Zimbalist’s role out on the interweb — I forget if it was in a comment thread here or on Twitter that someone suggested he was secretly following orders of his masters in Fenway Park — but the reality turns out to be more complicated, and in some ways more disturbing:
Zimbalist hasn’t exactly changed his tune on the terrible return cities get from stadiums. But he is more willing to grant exceptions, whether on the grounds that additional non-sports development makes for sunnier outcomes, or because minor-league cities are a different beast altogether…
He was able to reach this conclusion, he says, without any bookkeeping trickery: “I tried to at every turn be as straightforward and conservative as I could.” Even if the stadium itself is a money-loser like virtually all others in the past have been, he says his figures showed the city paying off its debts and even turning a small surplus, thanks to all the tax revenues that would pour in from the development alongside the stadium.
Basically, Zimbalist says that he hasn’t changed his tune on stadium subsidies — he still thinks they’re almost always a waste of cash — but the extra development that was promised alongside the stadium should generate lots of tax revenue, so Worcester should come out even. And if that’s development that Worcester could have gotten without spending to build a stadium — which is Worcester-based economist Victor Matheson’s contention, and which would have allowed the city to keep the tax revenue instead of giving it to the PawSox owners — well, that’s not the question Zimbalist was hired to answer: He just had to say whether a new stadium would require new taxes, and he was able to make the math say “nope,” albeit by throwing in some speculation about housing economics similar to what he did with his first big consulting analysis, that of the Brooklyn Nets arena 14 years ago.
“I don’t want to sound idealistic about this—it’s not perfect,” Zimbalist says. “I was not arguing that this is necessarily the best financial outcome that might accrue to the city.”
But does that come across to the public, I ask? Or do people not attuned to the nuances of stadium economics just hear “no new taxes” and leave it at that, even if it’s siphoning off tax money that might otherwise be available for less sportsy purposes?
“I think the point has come across really well,” says Zimbalist. But, he adds, “you ask, do people understand this? I think in Worcester, they don’t even want to understand it. There’s a tremendous amount of excitement about bringing the team there.”
That’s not exactly a “yes, they’re going into this with eyes wide open,” of course, and it raises concerns about what exactly the role of an economist should be: just to do the math on questions being asked by a city government, or to warn them, “Hey, that’s not really the right question to be asking.” Matheson told me he saw Zimbalist’s role as that of “a bit as an enabler … using his credentials and his prominence to basically give cover to the Worcester city council and Ed Augustus to go forward with this project.” And West Virginia University economist Brad Humphreys says he worries that studies like Zimbalist’s only end up encouraging cities and team owners to tack on development projects with harder-to-define impacts just to muddy the economic waters:
“This is a convenient dodge for any municipal government engaging in these sort of things,” says West Virginia University sports economist Brad Humphreys. “There’s not much evidence about the effectiveness of these targeted redevelopment projects that go along with mixed-use retail/residential projects.” That’s a good thing in one way, he says: At least it’s encouraging sports venues to be built with more than a sea of parking lots around them. “But whether the ancillary stuff is going to pay for the subsidy, that’s a pie in the sky claim that has no evidence to back it up.”
Anyway, this article ended up being really long and taking a deep dive into not just the economics on ancillary development, but minor- vs. major-league stadium impacts and the ethics of serving as an economic consultant. You can read the whole thing here, and if all goes according to plan, keep an eye out for future articles by me on stadium (and other) topics at Deadspin.